Friday, October 22, 2021

navalny: anti-Kremlin app ‘censored’ on first day of Russian vote

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MOSCOW: Allies of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny accused Apple and Google of “censorship” on Friday after they removed opposition voting apps at the start of a three-day parliamentary election in Russia.
Polls were opened across the vast country on Friday after a year of crackdown on opponents of President Vladimir Putin.
When voters started going to the polls on a cold Moscow morning, the opposition said a “Smart Voting” app that gave advice on how to vote had been removed from both Apple and Google app stores.
“They gave in to the Kremlin’s blackmail,” Leonid Volkov, an exiled Navalny aide, said on Telegram after Moscow accused US tech giants of election interference and demanded that they remove the app.
Navalny’s ally Ivan Zhdanov accused the companies of a “shameful act of political censorship,” posting a screenshot on Twitter of an email from Apple saying the app was removed because Navalny’s organization has been declared ” extremist”.
The Kremlin welcomed the move, saying the tech giants had settled for “the letter and spirit” of Russian law.
The app instructed Russians on how to vote strategically to try to defeat politicians in Putin’s United Russia party, after critical Kremlin candidates were largely banned from voting.
The election for the lower house state Duma seats, which runs through Sunday, comes after a year in which Navalny was jailed, many of his allies arrested and his organizations banned.
In a video before the vote, Putin said he was counting on voters to make “responsible, balanced and patriotic” decisions.
While the 68-year-old remains highly popular, United Russia has seen his popularity drop as living standards decline in a pandemic-induced economic recession.
Russia has also struggled to contain the coronavirus, with even Putin isolated this week after a major outbreak in his inner circle.
United Russia was getting less than 30 percent on the eve of the vote, but was still expected to retain its majority in the Duma due to a lack of alternatives.
Navalny’s “Smart Voting” campaign guided voters on which candidates to support in order to have the best hope of denying United Russia a seat. In this election, the majority of his voting list is made up of candidates from the Communist Party.
Zhdanov said on Twitter that his team was considering suing Apple and Google for removing the apps, but for now he was focusing on other ways to get the list off the ground.
He posted links to Google Docs with recommended candidates, and Navalny’s team released a video on YouTube showing the names.
Given that the vote will take place over three days, limited election observation and the option to vote electronically, critics say there will be few checks on the performance of the Kremlin party.
Still, voters were heading to the polling stations.
“If we stay at home, nothing will change,” said Alexander Shirokov, 55, who cast his vote in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok.
Some young voters in Moscow told AFP that they hoped new faces could join the Duma.
“I think the time is right for decent people to win,” said Sofia Makarova, a 22-year-old barista.
Sergei Ryzhov, a construction worker, said that while the majority of Russians would vote for United Russia, “competition is needed.”
Russian authorities announced that the vote would take place over three days to reduce the risks of the coronavirus, but the opposition says it will create greater opportunities to correct the results.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which often monitors elections in the former Soviet Union, said last month that it would not send observers due to a limit on the number imposed by Moscow.
Widespread allegations of fraud during the 2011 parliamentary elections sparked large demonstrations, but political observers are not expecting protests this time.
“Once the Duma elections are over, protests are unlikely as the opposition and civil society are demoralized,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
In addition to United Russia, 13 more parties are standing in the elections. Of the 450 members of the Duma, 225 are elected through party lists and the rest through single-member districts.
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